Q&A with Legendary Electric-Rock Harpist: Deborah Henson-Conant

Dec 17, 2012

Interview by Caleb Hsu

If shining angelic beings or Victorian elegance are the first images that come to mind when you think of a harp, prepare your mind for expansion! Deborah Henson-Conant, the world’s premiere contemporary electric harpist, is redefining the antiquated perception of the historic instrument. Deborah’s assistant, Beatriz Harley, explains that Deborah sings, plays, and tells stories in Nouvelle-Cabaret style shows that cover music from flamenco to blues styles. Deborah made her debut with the Boston Pops, introducing her fearless style to the world. She has also opened for Ray Charles at Tanglewood, jammed onstage with Bobby McFerrin and Steve Vai, and performed offstage with Aerosmith’s frontman, Steven Tyler. In the following interview, Deborah explains her ongoing transformation and career goals, along with offering some great advice to anyone seeking to defy misconceptions in the world.

Berkee Groove: How do you define a successful performance – what is most valuable walking away from a show?

Deborah Henson-Conant: I was recently talking to Steve Vai about a performance we did. Like me, he’s committed to being very physically expressive as a performer, both in his body and in partnering with his instrument. He said that night that he had held back just a little bit physically, just as an experiment. I asked him how that felt and he said, “Like I missed an opportunity.” Each performance is an opportunity to connect with the music, the instrument, the audience, and myself. For me, a successful performance is when I completely embrace that opportunity.

BG: Where do you draw the line between your life and your art? Is there a line?

DHC: There are many lines, but I don’t experience them as separating my life and my work, but rather as connecting them. I used to be embarrassed that my life is my work (and vice versa) but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been creating stories with music in one form or another and eventually I made it into my work. If you decide to make a living doing the thing you actually want to do no matter what, it doesn’t make sense for there to be a line between life and art. The bigger challenge for me is understanding the line between creating my art and promoting it, making sure I don’t spend so much time on either one that I drop the ball on the other.

BG: Where was this rock-star harpist image born? What made you decide to reinvent the common perception of the harp and transform your own image?

DHC: When I first got serious about the harp in my early 20’s, I started to get a glimpse of the incredible potential of the instrument and realized the common perception – angels, for example, was a self-perpetuating stereotype. If I wanted to change that stereotype, I’d need to change everything: the music I played, the way I dressed, the way I approached the instrument – and eventually I realized I had to change the instrument itself. Basically, I had to stop being a ‘harpist’ and start being ME with a harp. I thought: “If they could make a harp you could wear, and it could be electric, then anything you could do with an electric guitar, you could theoretically do with a harp.”

BG: What is the message you hope to send to people who watch you perform?

DHC: I’ve always said, when you walk away from my show, I want you to be more in love with the person you came with – including yourself. The concept of transformation is important to me. I used to be frustrated that people have such misconceptions about the harp, but now I realize that the transformation of that stereotype, which happens right in the show, is powerful for the audience. When people see something they thought was a delicate, limited ‘ladies instrument’ – and then see it with so much power, color, depth and wildness – their stereotype transforms right in the middle of the performance, and that’s a powerful moment. People start to think, “If all of that can come from one woman and that instrument I thought was a wimp, what else might be possible; what expressive power do I have that I’m not expressing?” I love it when people say that after seeing my show, they reconnected with their own art or their own passion of some sort. I think it comes in part from how I perform and what kinds of stories and music I use, but also just from them experiencing the transformation of that stereotype about the instrument.

BG: Has there ever been a point where you felt you lacked creative drive and if so, how did you reignite the fiery passion you display on stage?

DHC: I’ve actually developed a whole presentation about this called “Strings of Passion” that’s about how to maintain the creative impulse. I’ve definitely been frustrated and not known how to break out of my own box. I’m always creating projects for myself to get deeper into the fire of what I do. The tour I’m on right now is a perfect example. I had the chance to tour with a great performer, Steve Vai, to watch him every night for nearly 100 shows, to collaborate with him developing my own solo in the show, and to play his music. My main reason for doing it was to learn from him and the experience has exceeded my hopes. Sometimes I work with a coach, sometimes I push myself to share my work in early stages with other artists I trust – not so they can ‘evaluate’ my work – but so they can observe it and tell me exactly what they saw. That’s often how I discover what’s there.

BG: Most memorable performance?

DHC: Wow. I’m always blown away by things I least expect. One of the most memorable performances I experienced was when I was in Washington D.C. staying with a friend. It was a blustery night. I went out to the car to get something and when I came back, the wind was blowing nearly gale-like, and the bush right next to the door was going crazy with the wind. It looked like it was about to fly off into the night. There was a mockingbird in that tree and it was singing like nothing I’ve ever heard: wild, abandoned, notes going everywhere like it had to get everything about the world out of it’s soul in that song before it blew away with the bush. I just stood there in the darkening sky and listened. If I could play like that!

  “Performing is the greatest freedom I’ve ever experienced.”

BG: With all the publicity and success you’ve earned, what is your overall goal in performing today – has it always been the same?

DHC: I don’t think it’s ever changed. I want the music to come alive, and I want the stories to come alive because when they come alive for the audience, they come alive for me and then we – the audience and I – are living inside them. Music isn’t like a statue or a painting; music only exists in time. Each performance is an opportunity to be alive inside that story or that music. In the greatest moments of performing, I’m like I was as a kid: playing music just to play – to be lost in it, to be lifted from everyday and to exist in the glorious absence of ‘this is the way things are’ and right inside that place where anything can become anything else, just by changing a harmony or a rhythm, or by leaning into a note, or shading words with a certain sound. Performing is the greatest freedom I’ve ever experienced.

BG: Any advice for musicians who seek to create something organic and new – how do you become a fearless innovator?

DHC: People often ask me about being an innovator and I never feel like I’m innovating. I just always feel like “This should be possible. This instrument needs do this because this is what I need to say with it.” It feels more like frustration because I can already see it being the way I know it could be. In my mind, the reality is that the thing or ability I envision already exists. The disconnect between mere physical reality and the “real” reality of what I see in my mind/imagination is maddening. I really think the best way to create something organic and new is to tell the truth. There is nothing newer and more surprising than the truth and often nothing harder to see or to tell. If you stop focusing on what sounds good and actually tell exactly your own truth, it’s completely arresting and exciting. And, apparently, innovative!

Upcoming solo show & ticket information:
WHAT: Homecoming Solstice Celebration – Deborah Henson-Conant
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 21 at 8pm
WHERE: The Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St. Arlington, MA 02474
TIX: General Admission: $22 advanced, $25 day of show, $16 Students & Seniors, $75 VIP (including pre-show artist reception)
MORE INFO & TIX: regenttheatre.com/details/deborah_henson_conant_solstice_celebration
ARTIST WEBSITE: http://www.hipharp.com